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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Can the whales 'be saved' - again?
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website, St Kitts

Humpback whales
Japan will take humpbacks soon as part of its research programme
If people care for the welfare of whales, says Leah Garces, that alone should be enough to stop hunting.

"The cruelty of whaling holds the key to stopping the pro-whaling bloc," she declared at the end of the five-day International Whaling Commission (IWC) annual meeting in St Kitts.

"Scientific evidence presented this year confirms that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea and, therefore, that all commercial and so-called scientific whaling should cease on cruelty grounds alone.

"We believe the issue of cruelty is an unsurpassable fortress blocking any attempt to lift this moratorium."

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), Ms Garces' organisation, now aims to take the cruelty message into the homes of countries where it will be heard and appreciated - indeed, where it was heard and appreciated several decades ago when it was a key factor in establishing the global moratorium on commercial whaling.

The taste of vitriol is everywhere within the IWC. Many delegates have elephant-like memories of insults traded decades ago, of deals badly done, of liaisons made and broken
Will it be heard and appreciated in the whaling nations of Japan, Norway and Iceland?

Will it be heard in the Caribbean, African and Pacific countries whose votes were crucial in the key session of this meeting, when delegates endorsed the St Kitts Declaration, a motion calling for the eventual return of commercial whaling?

Will the citizens of these countries heed the other anti-whaling messages - that our knowledge of stock sizes is not complete enough to allow resumption of commercial hunting, and that whales can generate more income through eco-tourism than they can through meat markets and restaurants?

Crucial Caribbean

With this meeting being held in the Caribbean, and with countries like St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia being Japan's most vociferous allies, there has been intensive and at times acrimonious debate over the true views of Caribbean peoples.

Before the meeting, a poll commissioned by WWF showed majorities against whaling in states which traditionally support Japan. Caribbean leaders here said the poll was rigged, that some of the people questioned were in fact tourists, a charge which WWF emphatically denies.

Caribbean environmental groups intend to re-double efforts to swing public opinion behind the anti-whalers, and against the St Kitts Declaration, which they greeted with loathing.

"We find that it is impossible, inadmissible and very retrograde to even think in that way," said Lesley Sutty of the Eastern Caribbean Coalition for Environmental Awareness (Eccea).

Marie-Louise Felix, WWF
All the governments have a budget for their fisheries programmes, but it is never enough
Marie-Louise Felix, WWF

As to why Caribbean leaders lined up with Japan, she said: "I think there is serious influence by Japan - let's be honest with our words - with regard to certain parts of government, with regard to fisheries agencies around the world, not just in the Caribbean."

There are clearly two factors here. One is a belief that Japan has effectively bought votes in the IWC with fisheries aid - a charge which is often repeated but which Japan denies - and the other is that western nations have left a hole which Japan has plugged.

"All the [Caribbean] governments have a budget for their fisheries programmes, but it is never enough," said Marie-Louise Felix, wildlife management officer with WWF in Suriname and a former fisheries official in the Caribbean.

With the exception of one grant from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and another from Canada, she said, Caribbean countries had been unsuccessful at garnering fisheries aid from any source except Japan. European and US funding has often been sought, and regularly turned down.

"Japan has come to the assistance of Caribbean countries, and has had basically an open-door policy so the funding hasn't come with too many strings attached," she told me.

"And this has made a tremendous difference to fisheries management projects in most of the Caribbean countries."

The implication is clear, then: if western anti-whaling nations want to pick off Caribbean votes at the IWC, they need to get involved in fisheries aid. Many donate money for other issues, including poverty alleviation, good governance and health; but fisheries aid may hold the key to whaling.

Building the pressure

So what are the prospects of commercial whaling making a re-appearance?

It would need to be approved by a three-quarters majority at a future IWC meeting; and to prevent that from ever happening, environment groups, as well as pushing the cruelty message, plan to redouble their lobbying of sympathetic governments.

Some governments say they also plan to recruit other anti-whaling countries onto the commission.

But the best tactic that Japan and Norway have available may be simply to increase year after year the number of whales which they hunt - Norway commercially under a legal objection to the global moratorium, and Japan in the name of scientific research.

Whale (Getty Images)
Some delegates think the current situation is unsustainable

Increase it far enough, and the small number of nations that believe regulated commercial hunting to be less bad than the present situation could start to grow.

US whaling commissioner William Hogarth said the current situation was untenable, with numbers increasing year on year - 2,500 to be taken during 2006 - and said he thought it was a good idea to work with Japan on a system to ensure that if commercial hunting does come back, it is done on a sustainable basis.

The elements of such a system have been developed by the IWC over a 14-year period. It is called the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), and sets out to calculate sustainable catch limits for various species in various locations.

Mr Hogarth's team will be under some pressure at next year's IWC meeting because quotas for subsistence hunting are due for review; and renewing the US quota for indigenous Alaskan groups will be a high priority, with explosive political potential inside the US.

Some environment groups suggest this could force the US into a compromise deal with Japan.

Having said that, the US is currently lined up four-square against any lifting of the moratorium, and is diametrically opposed to Japan on one key issue.

If and when commercial hunting is re-introduced, it wants scientific whaling to end - a position with which Japan vehemently disagrees.

Whale schematic (BBC)

"These two issues are totally unrelated," said Joji Morishita, Japan's deputy commissioner.

"Under any resource management organisation, science and research are needed; and we will not accept the linkage of the issue of the RMS and scientific whaling."

Without compromise on that, Japan is unlikely to persuade many western delegates that it is serious about keeping future commercial whaling at sustainable levels.

Echoes of the past

The taste of vitriol is everywhere within the IWC. Many delegates have elephant-like memories of insults traded decades ago, of deals badly done, of liaisons made and broken.

Undercurrents of intolerance, colonialism, and chicanery permeate the conversations; even the allegation of racism rears its ugly head with depressing regularity.

Beneath all this, though, are two basic questions: is hunting whales cruel, and are stocks big enough to stand it?

The first will surely be fought on the basis of values; the second should be capable of scientific scrutiny, though many say that financial resources are too small to do really comprehensive assessments.

For now, conservationists push the precautionary principle. And Remi Parmentier of the Varda Group, here as a special advisor to the Pew Trusts, found a real irony in Japan's current position.

"Japan is complaining about the way things have gone in the era since 1972 when the moratorium was first proposed.

"But if we conservationists had not been there at the time, successfully pushing whale conservation and the moratorium, today there would not be any scope for discussion of a resumption of commercial whaling because in all likelihood there would only be remnant populations of whales left."



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